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Faith no more

Dan Carrier enjoys the images in Lawrence Joffe’s book that focuses on abandoned sacred places

16 May, 2019 — By Dan Carrier

What did Stonehenge in Wiltshire really mean to the Neolithic and Bronze Age people who built it? The answer is still cloaked in mystery. We do know that it was built in six stages between 3,000–1,520 BCE and, uniquely, it consists of artificially shaped sarsen stones, along with smaller bluestones that prehistoric Britons carried from South Wales, up to 150 miles away

FROM icons chiselled out of rock to the hewing of materials and the sweat of moving them to a designated space, the human need to build places of worship to honour their gods takes on many forms.

And in a new book, Islington-based author and historian Lawrence Joffe has tracked down the ancient and modern, ranging across belief systems and architectural styles, and focused on sacred places that now lie abandoned. He asks what do these buildings and edifices represent to those who built them, and how does something that held such value become lost and is now in disrepair?

The book boasts 170 beautiful photographs, and Lawrence’s journey crosses the globe and through the ages. There are churches and synagogues in Detroit and New York, Hindi temples that the Indian jungle has reclaimed, and mosques lost to the desert in the United Arab Emirates.

“The key word was abandoned,” says Lawrence. “The buildings we chose had not been restored, but returned to the earth.”

The wish to honour unseen gods is striking. The effort and cost of creating these edifices was huge, and that was true of pre-historic societies as much as it was for Christians and Muslims. The Pagan cultures of Europe also feature – Stonehenge and Hagar Qim in Malta.

Like something out of a fairytale, a Romanesque church spire dating back to 1355 pokes above the surface of Reschensee, South Tyrol, Italy. Yet in 1950, the image resembled a nightmare for 150 families who were forced to flee the deliberate flooding of their village to create a reservoir

In the European section of his global journey, Lawrence considers why so many European churches have been desecrated. He argues there are a variety of historical factors that mean Christian places of worship have often fared badly. The break with Rome and the rise of militant Protestants and Puritans played a role in changing the fabric of religious expression in Britain.

The French and Russian revolutions had detrimental effects as the state and people turned against the stonework that represented the world of the Bourbons or the Tsars.

The Second World War’s genocide and devastation is illustrated by the poignant images of Jewish synagogues and cemeteries in Vienna, Austria and Wroclaw, Poland.

Other spaces are less fraught with tragedy. One of the more quirky structures featured is the building known as the Chicken Church in Java, Indonesia. Its builder, Daniel Alamsjah, heard a heavenly voice that told him he should create the ultimate place of worship – a sanctuary for Christians, Muslims, Buddhists and even atheists. He started work in 1992 but after eight years a lack of money (and rumours he was a Christian out to convert Muslims) his building, which was designed to look like a dove rather than a chicken, was never completed.

Rocky Valley Church in Dooley, Montana, USA, was built in 1915 and deserted 30 years later

Lawrence also points out the economic reasons that led to migration, and with it the implanting of cultural traditions on new land, are factors behind many of these striking buildings.

A moss-covered, tumble-down cathedral in Sitka, Alaska, is a case in point. Orthodox Russians settled there in the late 1700s, building the Cathedral of St Michael.

But as the overhunting of sea otters meant the traders were not getting the returns they wanted, the cathedral’s days were numbered.

Elsewhere, in the USA, the Rock Valley Lutheran Church in Montana, dating from 1915, sits lopsided. Repeated crop failures, an armyworm infestation and winters so cold they froze railway lines meant the congrega­tion dwindled and the church fell into disrepair.

On every page, the idea that humans have been moved by high, unseen forces to celebrate and glorify is constant. It is a common denominator that links the brilliance of the churches of Wren or Hawksmoor to the remarkable feats that saw people living on Easter Island in the Pacific create the Moai statues.

The edifices act as reminders of the heady mix of human ingenuity and the creation of deities and religious stories to try to make some sense of the world around us.

“They have survived where other signs of a civilisation such as houses have crumbled,” says Lawrence. “It shows what they represented when they were first built.”

All images taken from the book Abandoned Sacred Places by Lawrence Joffe (ISBN 978-1-78274-769-7) published by Amber Books Ltd ( and available from bookshops and online booksellers (RRP £19.99).


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